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Chris Daly learned the steel drums so he could play Clipse’s “I’m Not You.”
Anybody can spend hours of each day for years of their lives to perfect any run-of-the-mill instrument, but it takes a particularly dedicated madman musician to chose as his own a less widely accepted tool, and take it in new directions others never even thought to explore. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of highly skilled guitarists, bassists, drummers, pianists, etc., and you likely could name dozens in each category, but how many pan flute prodigies can you name other than Zamfir?
Jonathan Scales travels the musical path less traveled by way of the steelpan. While you’d be forgiven if you thought the Trinidad & Tobago percussive instrument was played solely at shitty island-themed bars, on that one Zep track or the occasional Sesame Street clip, JS is here to prove just how misguided you’ve been on PILLAR, his sixth album proper, fourth overall on the Ropeadope label.
PILLAR sees the introduction of Scales’ newest trio, the at-first-glance peculiarly named Jonathan Scales Fourchestra, comprised of new, full-time rhythm battery bassist E’Lon JD and drummer Maison Guidry. You’re quite probably wondering why a threesome would call itself a Fourchestra, but the answer lies in the virtuoso guests Scales has sit in on this one. Over the course of the album, such superstars as bassists Victor Wooten, Oteil Burbridge (The Allman Brothers), and MonoNeon (Prince, Ghost Note), trumpeter Christian Scott, saxophonist Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band), keyboardist Shaun Martin, percussionist Weedie Braimah and banjo pioneer Béla Fleck sit in on various tracks. (Incidentally, Scales credits Fleck and his otherworldly approach to the currently less en vogue banjo for his decision to pursue the steel drums more seriously.
Throughout the album, Scales seldom treats his steelpans as percussion at all, instead utilizing them as any and everything from horns to piano, vibraphone to marimba, and Lord Quas knows we all could use a little more marimba in our lives.
Beyond the virtuosity on display, each track finds and fills it own lane. Opener “Fake Buddah’s Inner Child” has Scales trading licks with the aforementioned Burbridge with horns, guitar and “regular” drums sprinkled throughout the background, a light and airy introduction for the uninitiated. “This is the Last Hurrah” sees Coffin play a similar role with JS, but the vibe is decidedly funkier.
Closer “The Trap” is a straight up jam session, Scales sharing time with one of the nastier backing bands I’ve heard in a minute, comprised of MonoNeon, Victor Wooten, Weedie Braimah, & Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah). The trio does just fine on its own, thank you very much, on tracks like the ominous, “We Came Through the Storm,” the interstellar groove, “Dream-Life State,” and the downright fun, “How to Rebuild Your Battleship.” It’s when Scales joins his hero, Fleck, on “Focus Poem,” however, that the listener truly learns that music can originate from the most seemingly disparate sources and still get your ass shaking.
Scales himself describes PILLAR as “…a soundtrack to loss, focus, perseverance and triumph. Like pillars, we stand strong on unsteady ground, weathering life’s storms. Like pillars, we must sometimes be reconstructed and revitalized to withstand the crushing weight of our own worlds.” Truer words were never spoken, regardless of the instrument used to express the sentiment.